As the U.S. Department of Transportation released the year-2005 national highway death toll—43,200—the cabinet agency's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a study that shows drivers' behavior, including driving sleepy or distracted, plays a greater role in wrecks than earlier supposed.
The sobering annual statistic—preliminary, to be certified later in the year—and the results of the extensive behavioral study both were released on April 20. Deaths for 2005 exceeded those the preceding year, which saw 42,636 highway deaths. The cost of the 2005 deaths to society was estimated to be $230.6 billion.
Comparing 2004 with 2005:
• Alcohol-related highway deaths rose by 1.7% to 16,972;
• Passenger-car fatalities dropped 1.8%, but light-truck-occupant deaths rose 4.3%;
• Pedestrian deaths were up slightly, from 4,641 to 4,674; and
• Large-truck crash fatalities rose from 5,190 to 5,226.
"Every year this country experiences a national tragedy that is as preventable as it is devastating," said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta. "We have the tools to prevent this tragedy—every car has a safety belt, every motorcycle rider should have a helmet and everyone should have enough sense to never drive while impaired."
However, the NHTSA/Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study also implicated other driver behavior—driving while drowsy or while using a cellphone, applying makeup, dealing with kids in the back seat or other distractions—in 80% of crashes, the Associated Press reported. The study videotaped 241 drivers as they used the roads and also placed sensors in their vehicles. It brought in thousands of hours of information for review.
The study "illustrates the potentially dire consequences that can occur while driving distracted or drowsy. It's crucial that drivers always be alert when on the road," said Jacqueline Glassman, acting administrator of the NHTSA.
Among the study's findings:
Drivers who reached for a moving object while driving were nine times likelier to be in a crash than drivers who did not attempt that action.
Reading or applying makeup while driving increased crash risk by three times, and dialing a cellphone while driving increased crash risk by almost three times. Talking on a cellphone upped it by 1.3 times.
The study was deemed a breaththrough link between crash risks and activities becoming more common as people dine, chat on cellphones or receive e-mail while driving.
The drivers in the study got into 82 crashes—15 serious enough to be reported to police—and had 761 near-crashes and 8,295 incidents requiring evasive maneuvers.
"All of these activities are much more dangerous than we thought before," said Dr. Charlie Klauer, a senior research associate at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
"But also we're very concerned ... [that] the proliferation of technologies in the vehicle have just exacerbated the amount of time that drivers are distracted."
Fatigue also surprised the authors of the study, appearing in the study to be the cause of some 20% of crashes.
Utah officials, who have recently ramped up a campaign against drowsy driving, note that it has been shown to be the cause of about 10% of all that state's highway fatalities. But inconsistent reporting may make that statistic a significant underreporting, said Robert Hull, director of traffic and safety and the Utah Department of Transportation. In reality, sleepiness may be a cause of as many as 50% of the state's road deaths, he said.
The NHTSA study's underlying message—that drivers themselves can, by changing their behavior, avoid as many as 80% of crashes—must be heeded, Hull said.
"From an engineering standpoint, there is only so much we can do," he said. "We can't change behavior and we need to point out that there is much the public can do to help this themselves."